ROME — While many in conservative camps of the Church feared sweeping changes to the structure and function of the Synod of Bishops following the tumultuous 2014-2015 gatherings on the family, in a new constitution on the body published Tuesday, Pope Francis largely upheld the current process.
Critics who have been frustrated at the current process, however, might also be disappointed that no significant changes were made.
In the text, titled Episcopalis Communio (“Episcopal Communion”), signed Sept. 15 and published Sept. 18, Francis essentially maintained the current structure and function of the synod, mostly keeping in place the same rules for how the gatherings are carried out, who gets to participate, and who gets to vote.
Especially striking is a decision by Francis to uphold the current rules allowing the Supreme Pontiff to name whomever he wants to serve on a drafting committee for the gathering’s conclusions, which was a major point of contention in the 2014-2015 gatherings, with some arguing that the pope had stacked the deck in his favor, naming prelates who were likely to produce the outcome he desired.
In that case, the perceived desired outcome was a cautious opening to allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive communion, a conclusion Francis eventually expressed in his 2016 document on the synod process, Amoris Laetitia.
Suggestions were made by some participants in the 2014-15 summits that members of the drafting committee be decided by vote or by collegial consensus to make the body more representative of opinions within the synod. However, Pope Francis refrained from making any sweeping changes, and has maintained his power to name whoever he wishes to the organizing 15-member council and drafting committee.
Francis also stressed throughout the document the ability for a pope to give the Synod of Bishops, which is a consultative body, deliberative power should he wish, giving it more authoritative, decision-making power, while still requiring the pope’s approval.
The publication of the updated norms, which deal specifically with a section of Canon Law dealing with the synod, abrogates the previous canons set into place by former pontiffs.
The new norms come ahead of two scheduled synod gatherings, the first of which, dedicated to “Young People, Faith and the Discernment of Vocation,” is set to take place Oct. 3-28 in Rome.
Despite calls in some sectors for Pope Francis to cancel the gathering due to the sexual abuse scandals that have exploded in recent weeks, and which have thrown his pontificate into crisis, the Vatican Saturday published the official list of participants for the gathering, simultaneously signaling that the event is still on and reawakening concerns that the discussion will again be stacked in Francis’ favor, with his appointment of several loyalists as delegates.
A second synod dedicated to the Amazon region is also set to take place in 2019. It’s not clear whether, in either case, Francis may be inclined to entrust those gatherings with deliberative power.
In the constitution, Francis said the Synod of Bishops is increasingly “an adequate channel for evangelization in the modern world,” and has a particular missionary and collegial character.
In comments to the press during the presentation of the constitution, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said one of the main objectives of the new document is to render the synod “more dynamic, and because of this, more incisive in the life of the Church.”
This dynamic, he said, largely depends on the “the circulatory relationship” between the synod and local churches, Eastern Catholic churches and bishops conferences.
“The synod ‘departs’ from the local churches, that is, from the base, from the People of God spread throughout the earth,” and after the gathering, the synod, “‘returns’ to the particular churches, where the conclusions implemented by the pope must be translated keeping in mind the concrete needs of the People of God, in a necessarily creative process of inculturation,” he said.
Given the document’s emphasis on collegiality, the relationship among bishops and with their faithful and the process of consultation with the People of God, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the constitution shows that what Pope Francis has termed “synodality” is “not an option in the Church,” but is now the basic norm of how it ought to be.
Established by Pope Paul VI in 1965 by the motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo, “Apostolic Care,” the synod of bishops effectively serves as an advisory body to the pope aimed at strengthening ties with the pope and with other bishops.
According to the synod’s online profile, the body’s aim is to provide bishops with an opportunity to “interact with each other and to share information and experiences, in the common pursuit of pastoral solutions which have a universal validity and application.”
The synod, the profile says, can essentially be defined “as an assembly of bishops representing the Catholic episcopate, having the task of helping the Pope in the governing of the universal Church by rendering their counsel.”
Prior to each gathering a topic is chosen the pope, and members of a Synod Council organizes the event based on that theme. The Synod Council is made up of a permanent Secretary General (currently Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri) and Undersecretary (Italian Bishop Fabio Fabene), as well as 15 additional members – 3 from each continent, with Asia and Oceana (Australia) considered as one, and three others named by the pope.
From the 15 members, 12 are named by cardinals and bishops participating in the previous ordinary synod, and they serve a 5-year term. When the term ends at the close of the synod they are preparing for, a new council is elected to prepare for the next gathering.
The Council for the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops has the task of organizing the Ordinary Synod, which typically occurs every three years and which is dedicated to a specific topic of importance for the Church.
In certain cases, the pope can call an Extraordinary Synod if he believes the topic needs deeper reflection, as was the case with the 2014 extraordinary Synod on the Family called for by Pope Francis.